Neil Calloway looks at why Britain’s wartime leader is rarely off our screens…
It’s a great pub quiz question; which character has been played by Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall, Michael Gambon, Albert Finney, Brian Cox and Christian Slater?
The answer is, of course, Winston Churchill. I normally roll my eyes when I go to a preview screening of something and a member of the public asks a question, it almost inevitably being both pretentious and with little bearing on what we’ve just seen, but last year, after a screening of the TV drama Churchill’s Secret, someone asked if Winston Churchill was becoming a modern Hamlet; the role that every actor wants to play at some point. There’s some truth to that assertion.
Now, with the upcoming release of Darkest Hour, we can add Gary Oldman to the list of those who have played Britain’s wartime leader. There’s another pub quiz question – who has played Sid Vicious, Joe Orton, Beethoven, Lee Harvey Oswald and now Churchill? Given that Oldman has made a career out of playing real people, and iconic characters like Dracula and Jim Gordon that may as well be real, it’s perhaps no surprise that Oldman is taking on the role of Churchill.
There is probably as much myth surrounding Churchill as almost anyone in history; fake quotes attributed to him probably pop up on your social media feed as often as made up ones credited to Marilyn Monroe or Albert Einstein. But while there is myth, there’s a whole lot of fascinating truth to his life story. He rode in a cavalry charge while Queen Victoria was on the throne and was still an MP after the Rolling Stones had released their first album, managing to propose to – and get turned down by – Drew Barrymore’s great-aunt along the way.
With the possible exception of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, nobody’s words have seeped so deeply into the English language as Churchill’s. Dunkirk ends with one of his speeches put into the mouth of a soldier returning from France, Their Finest takes its name from another of his speeches, and Molly’s Game ends with the main character quoting him. That’s just three films from one year. That doesn’t happen with Anthony Eden.
It’s his combination of longevity and quotability – along with the fact that actors playing him can be rude but funny, and smoke cigars and whisky – that make him such an appealing character to play. There’s so much there and it’s all true – it’s a filmmaker’s goldmine, and it leaves us Brits feeling all warm and nice (if you leave out the bits about him sending in the army to quell an industrial dispute in Wales, almost his entire record on India, his attitude towards the native populations of North America and Australia, and countless other controversies he found himself at the centre of – it’s no wonder we normally concentrate on a short period in the early 1940s). Despite all that, Churchill will be a fixture of the screen for decades to come.
Neil Calloway is a pub quiz extraordinaire and Top Gun obsessive. Check back here every Sunday for future instalments.